I often speak of my desire for more books that reflect my values, and I fully intended to do a separate post on the subject. I still might, at a later date. For now, The Martian is the next book on my to-be-reviewed list, and would, in fact, serve as a decent demonstration of what I mean.
On the surface, the plot could not be simpler, or more fundamental to literary tradition: Man versus Nature, or to make it even more basic, human fight for survival. There are two paths in covering this theme. One describes man as an insignificant, weak creature, hurtling towards doom from the moment he is born, powerless against the vastness of the Universe. It has become a popular view over the last few decades, as many of the creatively inclined individuals have lost their sense of the wondrous and the heroic and turned more and more inward, looking for meaning in a sea of diffuse angst and anxiety.
The Martian, as you might have guessed, takes the second approach, showing the strength and unbreakable spirit of humanity in the face of insurmountable external obstacles. Sure, the quality of writing, the characters, the darkly humorous tone and the pacing all make for a great novel, but I think it is the values the story represents that make for its near universal appeal.
We see a man, the stranded astronaut, who refuses to give up, time after time, after both nature and blind fate turn against him, using all of his physical, intellectual and emotional resources to survive. We see administrators, scientists, and spaceship crew presented with heart-wrenching choices and impossible tasks. We see the world coming together in caring about survival of a single man who has come to represent something that every human being understands and appreciates on a visceral level. The spirit of this story speaks to us beyond the plot points, beyond the science, beyond the suspension of disbelief that is always required even in the hardest of hard sci-fi stories. We relate deeply to the character who is probably unlike anyone we would ever meet in real life; we get engrossed into the intricacies of Mars geography, and we learn more than we have ever wanted about creating arable soil with the help of human refuse (yep, it goes there). And we respond, all because of the the view of humanity the novel espouses, and the fresh appreciation of our world we get when the last page is turned.
I did, of course, mention that the appeal is near universal. There are those among us that hold a darker worldview and prefer to have it confirmed in the art they choose to consume. Personally, I come from the position that the world is indeed a dark and scary place more often than not, and that darkness will find us without any effort on our part. Seeking out light and hope is hard work and at times a daily struggle. Fortunately, we have help along the way: family and friends, faith and productive work, and just as indispensably for many of us, stories of courage and hope that tell us we can make it and that life is worth living. The Martian is one of those stories, unapologetically so. Even if you are not a sci-fi reader, if the themes I describe appeal to you, I guarantee you will enjoy this book.
(As an aside, the movie is very good, and Matt Damon does justice to the character, but it just wasn't possible to fit all the details into the movie. You truly need to read the novel for the full experience. It is well worth your time.)